Paul Watkins has known where to look for motivation this summer.
The North Forsyth rising junior was one of the top wrestlers in the state this past high school season, but his season ended in a loss to Camden County’s Brandon Orum in the state finals, and that disappointment has stuck with Watkins.
“I’ve definitely been working harder,” Watkins said. “That (loss) has definitely changed me.”
He was speaking from the far-flung destination of Fargo, North Dakota, where he had just racked up the second All-American honor of his offseason tour of vengeance with an eighth-place finish in the 126-pound weight class at the U.S. Marine Corps Junior and Cadet Nationals, one of the top events on the high school wrestling circuit.
Watkins hasn’t taken a legitimate break since the high school season, and his first placement came at the National High School Coaches Association Sophomore National tournament in late March. That put him in a small group of North Forsyth wrestlers to earn All-American honors – Brantley Little and Hanna Zinn are the others – but it wouldn’t be Watkins’ peak.
“Some wrestling purists say you’re not a high school All-American unless you place at Fargo,” said Travis Jarrard, Watkins’ coach at North.
Along with drawing the best wrestlers in the country, the tournament in Fargo carried the challenge of being divided into freestyle and Greco-Roman disciplines, both of which vary from the folkstyle discipline of high school wrestling. Watkins had to work through a learning curve, but his training with the Team Georgia organization helped him get prepared.
The tournament in Fargo has long held prestige for Watkins – “I’ve been wanting to place here since before I could wrestle in it,” he said – and he had the drive to improve on his last time there, when he came two matches away from placing.
Watkins thought freestyle, which came first on the schedule, would be his best shot at doing so, given that he did better there than in Greco-Roman at the Southeast Regional Championships in late May. But a brutal draw and subsequent loss to Ryan Ripplinger of North Dakota quickly put Watkins in the consolation bracket, and while he wound up going 2-2 overall, the unsatisfying feeling of that result helped fire him up for Greco-Roman.
He blew through his first three matches, winning by double-digit margins each time, before losing to Ripplinger by a point in Thursday’s quarterfinals. He could still get All-American status with a win in the consolation “blood round,” though.
Before that match, Watkins went through the same pre-match routine of listening to music. But while he normally does that to get fired up, this time he was trying to calm down. That plan worked, as he held his position throughout the match and came away with an 8-2 win against Matthew Ryan of Connecticut.
Jarrard was watching that match on his phone, and the result excited him so much that he thought he was going to get kicked out of the restaurant where he was eating dinner.
“He wrestled with tremendous confidence all day,” Jarrard said.
Watkins lost both of his matches on Friday, but those defeats don’t weight on him like the state title loss. He’d already locked up the All-American spot, and he got closer to his goal of wrestling in college by performing well in front of the many coaches in attendance.
Next up for Watkins is the Super 32 Challenge in October in Greensboro, North Carolina. He’ll still think back to the state title loss for motivation in training, but his recent successes will be there as well.
“I just can’t wait to see what’s in the future,” Watkins said.